Data collection

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Data is collected via electronic and digital technologies and then analysed either within a system or as part of a wider organisational structure.

This page is part of an ongoing, open-ended online collaborative database, which collects relevant approaches that can be used by city-makers to tackle unsustainability and injustice in cities. It is based mainly on knowledge generated in EU-funded projects and touches on fast changing fields. As such, this page makes no claims of authoritative completeness and welcomes your suggestions.

General introduction to approach

The creation, use and maintenance of digital infrastructures is increasingly on the agenda for urban governance, with a number of potential implications for sustainability and justice. The exchange of digital data relating to transport, energy or other realms promises to increase efficiency, reduce waste, provide more information, improve decision making and allow for real time updates for both citizens and the state. For example, in terms of transport, digital data collection might allow for the improvement of local transit planning, operational performance, investment decisions and passenger access to information. Projects such as Siade SaaS[1] aim to create visual systems designed for managing transport networks, utilizing mass data analysis - combining passenger records with geographic information system implementation.

Digital data collection as described here does not strictly refer to a collaborative or participatory activity, though it may involve users choosing to share their data. Rather it is an approach in which private companies or other entities are contracted by the state or other organisations to create digital platforms that allow for the collection and analysis of digital data.

Shapes, sizes and applications

When digital data collection first entered the realms of possibility, it was often presented as a silver bullet solution by large private companies who sought to enter into contractual arrangements with municipalities. However, this idea failed to stick in part due to reluctance of cities with both limited funds and knowledge/experience of vastly expensive past IT projects. Currently, there exists a range of smaller, more experimental and emerging digital data solutions utilized in different ways and in different settings, usually termed ICT (internet communication technology) platforms. The OPTIMISM project[2] identified a number of best practices including car sharing schemes, personalised travel information services, mobile payment devices, and online route planners.

In its most comprehensive form, digital data collection is part of the move towards creating ‘smart cities’ - urban conglomerations built around the ‘internet of things’ where networked systems collect, share and analyse data at the municipal level. One example of this is the FINEST Twins project[3] in which a Smart City Center of Excellence (CoE) based in Estonia will utilize the experiences of nearby Helsinki and further combine knowledge from academia, the public sector and companies in the creation of a hub for guiding smart city futures in the cross-border region.

As with many digital technologies, their transferability is wide if a) the local state has the resources to invest; or b) private companies see the possibility for profit.

Relation to UrbanA themes: Cities, sustainability, and justice

Digital data collection and analysis works well in urban settings because the quantity of data produced should provide the possibilities for a more detailed analysis. Digital data collection approaches, especially in their smart city form (see Smart Cities), are bound up with urban utopian dreaming - often talking of technologically saturated futures in which cities function seamlessly. However, concerning the justice and sustainability of such data driven approaches, it is difficult disentangle initiatives from a closed concept of urban development that aligns governments with private industries and thus, for the most part, suggest solutions which are economically profitable. For instance, in terms of energy it might be the setting up of a smart grid to make consumption more efficient, rather than developing community energy provision; in terms of the management of urban waste it might mean a reframing the issue as the optimisation of collection, rather than the reduction of consumption [4]; whilst in terms of transport it might mean diverting resources to the downtown at the expense of isolated neighbourhoods that may have fewer potential passengers, but also less car ownership. In such instances data collection not only fails to tackle unsustainable and unjust processes, but rather helps uphold them in the long term. The challenge, then, is to harness the potentials found within digital data exchange platforms for social and environmental justice or, if it is not possible within existing platforms, redesign or re-purpose the technology for more progressive aims. Such a move might improve marginalised communities access to energy, transport or other utilities and thus allow them the security, space and time to flourish in data saturated cities.

This might mean more openness and transparency. As, Timo Ruohomäki, an engineer working as a project manager of mySMARTLife[5] at Forum Virium Helsinki argues, “in many cases it seems like smart cities are about adding cameras and sensors and collecting data... [but] this is not how we see it... We don't want to have that type of Orwell approach, that the city is monitoring you all the time… “In order to improve the ways citizens can participate, we need to be very transparent... and also there has to be a [noticeable] benefit for the person… Very often a single source of data is not valuable by itself, it should be combined with other data... [and] data should be open unless there is a specific reason not to... if people want to, they can track what is happening and participate in a meaningful way”

Narrative of change

Cities are often inefficient, produce waste and under-utilize capacities. Intelligent use of digital data generated by sensors or citizens can allow for more efficient, less wasteful and capacity-maximising cities. This could have potentially positive consequences for sustainability and justice if the data is gathered and analyzed in ways that forefront such concerns.

Transformative potential

The transformative potential of digital data collection rests to a great degree on whether it is used within the prevalent exclusionary and environment-damaging processes of urban change, or if it can be used to create new urban cultures. The digital is pregnant with promise, but the utopian proclamations about how digital data can improve our cities are based, for the most part, within paradigms that place economic development at the fore. This casts questions about justice and sustainability within discussions about profit and a system which is predicated on growth. Their transformative potential is further neutered by the expense of many data exchange platforms or initiatives, or their reliance on a population with personal devices. As such, for power relations to be challenged and data collection to be used for justice and sustainability, first of all, questions have to be asked not only about implementation but also design. According to Andrea Cominola, Junior Professor of Smart Water Networks at the Einstein Center Digital Future and Technische Universität Berlin, who researched within the SmartH20 project[6] there is a tension between calls for open data sets and commercial concerns, as well as the need to balance user privacy with a desire for high resolution data. How public, private, community and state interests operationalize digital data collection will set the contours of the approach’s transformative potential.

Illustrations of approaches

ICT platforms: ICT (internet communication technology) platforms can help with more efficient and easily analysable digital data exchange. For instance, the SmartH2O[7] project built an ICT platform that could, in quasi real time, capture and store data on residential water usage, build customer behaviour models, and monitor how customer behaviour could be influenced by water management strategies. In this way it closed the loop, feeding back the information in a way that affected customer’s water usage. According to the above mentioned Andrea Cominola and Andrea Castelletti (Associate Professor of Natural Resources Management in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Politecnico di Milano), both of whom worked within the project, there was a relative difference in per-capita water consumption of between 5 and 20 percent for the SmartH2O users in Valencia (Spain). Castelletti says that the suggestions are like “a recommendation in an Amazon or Google style... [the system] recognises if the user is interested in certain things to help households reduce water consumption.”

Smart Cities: On a broader scale is the project Smart Impact[8]. They aimed to create new ways of working so cities are more liveable and sustainable. It is a partnership of 10 cities, led by Manchester, and they share and work together. The project has 5 key components: data governance, organisational development, smart financing, regulations and incentives, and local innovation ecosystems. The cities all made action plans, strategies, data management plans, encouraged citizen involvement and helped start-ups.


  4. Evans, James, Andrew Karvonen, Andres Luque-Ayala, Chris Martin, Kes McCormick, Rob Raven, and Yuliya Voytenko Palgan. ‘Smart and Sustainable Cities? Pipedreams, Practicalities and Possibilities’. Local Environment 24, no. 7 (3 July 2019): 557–64.